By JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 09/14/2007 02:30:23 PM PDT
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A state appeals court on Friday threw out the only remaining conviction against one of the black teenagers accused in the beating of a white schoolmate in the racially tense north Louisiana town of Jena.
Mychal Bell, 17, should not have been tried as an adult, the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal said in tossing his conviction on aggravated battery, for which he was to have been sentenced Thursday. He could have gotten 15 years in prison.
“There is no substitute for victory. Giddy is the right word,” defense attorney Bob Noel said at a news conference in Monroe.
Bell’s conspiracy conviction in the December beating of student Justin Barker had already been thrown out by another court.
District Attorney Reed Walters said in a statement delivered to the weekly Jena Times that he would appeal to the state Supreme Court “after I review the decision thoroughly,”
He must appeal within two weeks. Bell, whose bond was set at $90,000, cannot be released from the LaSalle Parish jail unless Walters lets that period lapse without an appeal or the Supreme Court rules in Bell’s favor, Sheriff Carl Smith said.
Bell, who was 16 at the time of the beating, is one of six black students at Jena High School charged in an attack on fellow student Justin Barker, and one of five originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.
Those charges brought widespread criticism that blacks were being treated more harshly than whites after racial confrontations and fights at Jena High School.
Civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, had been planning a rally in support of the teens for the day Bell was to have been sentenced.
“Although there will not be a court hearing, we still intend to have a major rally for the Jena Six and now hopefully Mychal Bell will join us,” Sharpton said in an e-mailed statement.
Said Jackson: “The pressure must continue until all six boys are set free and sent to school, not to jail.”
Jena is a mostly white town where racial animosity flared about a year ago when a black student sat under a tree that was a traditional gathering place for whites. A day later, three nooses were found hanging from the tree. There followed reports of racial fights at the school, culminating in the December attack on Barker.
The reversal of Bell’s conviction will not affect four other teenagers also charged as adults, because they were 17 years old at the time of the fight and no longer considered juveniles, said attorney George Tucker of Hammond.
Judge J.P. Mauffray had thrown out Bell’s conspiracy conviction, saying it was not a charge on which a juvenile may be tried as an adult. But he had let the battery conviction stand, saying Bell could be tried in adult court because the charge was among lesser charges included in the original attempted murder charge.
Teenagers can be tried as adults in Louisiana for some violent crimes, including attempted murder, but aggravated battery is not one of those crimes, the court said.
Defense lawyers had argued that the aggravated battery case should not have been tried in adult court once the attempted murder charge was reduced.
The case “remains exclusively in juvenile court,” the Third Circuit ruled.
Associated Press reporters Kevin McGill and Todd Lewan contributed to this report.